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Native Sun News: Utility faces lawsuit in Rosebud Sioux court

Filed Under: Law | National | Politics
More on: elections, energy, jurisdiction, native sun news, rosebud sioux, south dakota, tribal courts
   

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.


An electric power line provided by Cherry-Todd Electric Coop crosses the Niobrara River. Courtesy/Cherry-Todd Electric Coop

Rosebud Sioux Tribe, representing 80% of electric coop membership, sues utility for discrimination
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

Part I

ROSEBUD – The Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council voted Jan. 29 to join a lawsuit charging the Cherry Todd Electric Cooperative with vote fraud and discrimination against tribal members.

“I am really proud of council action yesterday, because it means they see this as a fight that needs to be fought,” RST Utilities Commission Chairman Ronald Neiss told the Native Sun News on Jan. 30.

The lawsuit, as summarized in an argument filed in Rosebud Tribal Court on Sept. 24, stems from the rural electric cooperative’s 2013 annual meeting, at which staff conducted voting to exclude Native American votes and duplicate non-Indian votes.

The electric cooperative is one of 137 member-owned electrical service utilities in the Bismarck, North Dakota-based Basin Electric wholesale power generation and transmission provider’s system.

Controlling service in Todd and Melette counties in South Dakota and in Cherry County in Nebraska, the cooperative meets at Mission on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, where 80 percent of its membership consists of tribal enrollees.

Tribal members’ participation in annual meetings and on the cooperatives elected board of directors has been scant since the coop’s inception in 1946, according to Neiss.

But things changed at the most recent annual meeting and board election, held Sept. 21.

That’s when the grassroots Oyate For Fairness and Equal Representation (OFFER) invited tribal members to the First Annual Tribal Empowerment Gathering and Feed, marshalling support to attend and vote.

The tribal government got behind the event that that took place at Sinte Gleska University on voting day from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., providing a meatloaf dinner and free transportation.

Three tribal enrollees who decided to run for a like number of open seats on coop board met the would-be voters at the Ben Reifel Auditorium in Mission, where the coop had scheduled the membership event.

According to numerous participants’ accounts, there’s where trouble began.

The arrival of more than 130 tribal members swelled the voting ranks to their largest in the coop’s 64-year history. The official tally of registered meeting goers was 367.

So many unexpected participants attended that the coop ran out of door prizes.

“Due to the unusually large number of members who attended this year’s annual meeting, our supply of registration gifts was exhausted,” the coop reported in its November newsletter. “We have obtained an additional supply. Those members who registered but did not receive one may stop in or give us a call,” it said.

However, other problems encountered at the meeting might not be so easy to solve.

Staffers also ran out of ballots. So instead they handed out pink slips for voting.

Participants complained that the coop staff refused to register some of the tribal enrollees, claiming they had inadequate identification, even when fellow members vouched for them.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s newspaper “The Sicangu Eyapaha” captured pictures of non-Indian voters holding two or three pink slips.

When the ballots for board member candidates were counted in secret, there were 80 more votes than there had been in a preceding floor vote on an amendment.

None of the tribal candidates won a seat, although tribal enrollees appeared to constitute about half of the voters in the room.

These and other allegations were presented at a public hearing held by the Tribal Utilities Commission at Rosebud Tribal Council chambers on Jan. 31 in order to document grievances.

The staff and board members of the electric coop did not attend the daylong session, sending a contractor to take notes.

Coop General Manager Tim Grablander did not respond to Native Sun News telephone messages left at his office and private number.

Although the coop newsletter of November sported a headline saying “64th Cooperative Annual Meeting Enjoyed by All”, the board also distributed a notice of apology stating:
“The board acknowledges the challenges presented during the business portion of the annual meeting and apologizes for the inconvenience caused to the members by the disturbances they encountered in that session.

“The board has initiated measures to insure that future annual meetings are conducted in an efficient and orderly manner and looks forward to seeing the members at the cooperative’s 65th annual meeting in 2014.”

The Cherry-Todd Electric Cooperative by-laws state: “No member may hold more than one membership in the cooperative.”

A couple may acquire a joint membership, in which case, they only have one vote between the two of them.

“Each member shall be entitled to any one vote upon each matter submitted to a vote at a meeting of the members.”

Like other electric coops, Cherry-Todd has federal funding from the Rural Utility Service of the Agriculture Department and so must comply with federal non-discrimination policies.

Cherry Todd’s published legal Statement of Nondiscrimination notes that “this organization is committed not to discriminate against any person on the grounds of race, color or national origin, solely by reason of such person’s handicap, or on the basis of age, in its policies and practices relating to applications for service or any other policies and practices relating to treatment of beneficiaries and participants including employment, rates, conditions and extension of service, admission or access to or use of any of its facilities, attendance at and participation in any meetings of beneficiaries, and participants or the exercise of any rights of such beneficiaries and participants in the conduct of operations of this organization.”

The statement directs anyone who feels subjected to discrimination to address a written complaint to Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service within 180 days. The tribal judge is deciding whether the court has dominion in the case.

The case was filed by the tribal enrollees who ran for coop board of directors, Rose Cordier, Shawn Bordeaux and Ann-Ericka White Bird, who claim the electric service utility is subject to tribal jurisdiction because it operates on the reservation.

(Contact Talli Nauman, NSN Health and Environment Editor at talli.nauman@gmail.com)


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